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Last June, in the town of Wacissa, Florida, Edna Brittle stood in her tidy little kitchen, preparing peaches. She turned on the faucet. Out splashed water that smelled like gasoline. An analysis of her well water showed that it contained 212 times the allowable amount of benzene, an extremely inflammable colorless liquid and a known human carcinogen, and twice the permitted amount of 1,2 Dichloroethane, a suspected carcinogen. Her well most likely was polluted by an underground gasoline tank used by a store across the road.

Edna’s case is not an isolated one. Scattered newspaper reports indicate that the pollution of America’s wells and ground water is widespread. Ground water makes up 96 percent of our total freshwater resource; underground aquifers supply drinking water for 117 million Americans, about half the population; and wells supply water for food processing, irrigation, livestock, and industry. The problem is that no one seems to be certain of how widespread and lethal the problem is.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that at least 8,000 private, public, and industrial wells are affected by toxic pollution. In September, 1985, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimated that of the 130,000 storage tanks in New York alone, 26,000 are leaking. Records kept by the state agency also show that more than 100 drinking water supplies have been contaminated by petroleum.

In June of 1985, a faulty 10,000 gallon tank in Connecticut gushed 6,000 gallons of fuel into the ground before the leak was even discovered. And just one gallon of gasoline can contaminate 750,000 gallons of ground water.

There are solutions to polluted wells. Jerry Lowry, an engineer with the University of Maine at Orono, said aeration tanks and charcoal filters can remove most of the gasoline from polluted wells, but the cost is high. An aeration system costs about $2,800 to install, plus monthly maintenance costs.

The issue which the press has failed to address is the scope of the problem and the failure of the federal government to develop a national program to cope with the problem.

Sierra Club representative Rose McCullough says “The EPA has talked about a program for years, but has so far failed to suggest a piece of legislation to protect people’s health. In general, states are hampered by the lack of a coherent federal model and by inadequate funding and insufficient regulation at the national level.”


(N.C.) OBSERVER, 7/12/85, “leaded Gasoline Contaminates Well Water in Union County,” by Gene Stowe; NEW HAVEN (Conn) REGISTER, 9/15/85, “Tanks Leaking More Than Suspected,” by Abram Katz; DEMOCRAT & CHRONICLE, 9/29/85, “Businesses, Municipalities Prepare for Storage Tank Rules,” by Ed Lopez; TALLAHASSEE (FLA) DEMOCRAT, 6/23/85, “Petroleum products and water do mix,” by V. Kuntz; SIERRA, July/August 1985, “Toxics on Tap” and “Groundwater and the Law,” by D. Piper, F. Ladd.